One of the features of our age is the idea that business suffers from a unique level of technological disruption, an attitude that I call Techno-Egotism. Businesspeople are told routinely that they operate in an era of “unprecedented” technological change; as a result, they feel very Modern (and rather sorry for themselves). They also, however, end up lacking perspective, and that can be a strategic liability.
I believe that if posterity registers our age’s Techno-Egotism at all, they will find it rather quaint. This thought struck me with great force last week as I drove across the George Washington Bridge, from New York to New Jersey, specifically in order to spit legally into a tube, and then mail that tube.
Posted in Case study, Theory
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An interesting way to think about how organizations deal with disruptions in their environment, and what ultimately causes their demise, is to consider the thesis of Arnold J Toynbee on the decline of civilizations and apply it to the world of organizations.
Toynbee is the author of “A study in history“, the landmark book on the history of civilizations. The book comprises 6,000 pages, no less. Fortunately, a professor decided to write an abridged version, which allows normal people like you and me to grasp the virtuosity and knowledge of Toynbee in only… 1,200 pages in two volumes. What does Toynbee write? According to him, a civilization grows when its elite is creative enough to attract inside and outside constituents. The civilization breaks down when the elite loses this creative capacity and gives way to, or transforms itself into, a dominant minority. When this happens, the driver of the civilization becomes control, not attraction, and its unity ends.
One of the characteristics of a disruption is that one has to deal with a new situation for the first time. Hence, almost by definition, one doesn’t have any prior experience to draw upon, and often no existing framework to use.
Does that mean that radically new situations must be dealt with without referring to the past experience? In their book, “Thinking in time”, Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May think not. They argue that there is always an analog, ie a past situation decision makers can refer to, but on the conditions that the similarities and differences with the present situation be clearly understood.